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Public speaks out against new state water quality standards

New water quality standards proposed by the state in late April prompted a wide range of opposition at a public hearing Monday.

Throughout the rulemaking process, Montana’s Department of Environmental Quality has tried to strike a balance between carrying out legislation from the 2021 session to change nutrient pollution regulations while still meeting federal water quality standards.

There were no supporters of the changes in Monday's meeting.

Wastewater managers from Great Falls, Bozeman, Billings, Helena, Missioula and Livingston asked DEQ to withdraw the proposal. Ed Coleman with Helena Public Works said the changes could financially burden cities that have already invested in millions in water treatment facilities.

“If these rules cause us to make significant improvements to our wastewater treatment plans, those impacts and those costs are going to fall to our ratepayers, many of which can't really afford them,” Coleman said.

They also said upgrades would require more energy, and lead to the burning of more coal to power their facilities.

The changes would incorporate more narrative standards, like the health of fish or insects in a river, to determine if nutrient pollution is an issue, and use some numerical standards that set limits of a given nutrient in the water.

Several industry groups, including the Montana Mining Association, Montana Petroleum Association and Treasure State Resource Association said DEQ’s proposal doesn’t align with legislative intent, and are pushing the agency to eliminate all numeric standards.

Environmental groups, like Upper Missouri Waterkeeper have opposed the changes for different reasons. They say any move towards narrative standards means the agency will be reactive, and fail to protect water bodies before harm is done.

The public comment period has closed and it is now up to DEQ to decide how to move forward.

Ellis Juhlin is MTPR's Rocky Mountain Front reporter. Ellis previously worked as a science reporter at Utah Public Radio and a reporter at Yellowstone Public Radio. She has a Master's Degree in Ecology from Utah State University. She's an average birder and wants you to keep your cat indoors. She has two dogs, one of which is afraid of birds.
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